Episode 13: Inside the McKinsey Publishing Machine With Raju Narisetti

As the leader of McKinsey’s global publishing for three years and counting, Raju Narisetti has a knack for helping businesses, media companies and journalists remain relevant in the digital age. His goal at McKinsey, a leader in the management consulting industry, is to triple the size of its audience over five years.

Raju’s 32-year career includes 14 years as a writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal, where he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. He was both the youngest and first person of color to appear on the mastheads of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. (The masthead is a newspaper’s listing of its top editors, publisher and owners.) Raju also founded Mint, an Indian business newspaper, where was editor in chief for three years.

Raju and Bob Buday met each other in November 2022 at Profiting From Thought Leadership, a conference that Bob has co-produced six times since 2016. At the event, Raju and McKinsey Global Editorial Director Lucia Rahilly spoke on their firm’s approach to thought leadership.

In this episode of “Everything Thought Leadership” video + podcast, Raju and Bob discuss how McKinsey is able to produce so much high-quality content in high volume; how the firm has been using data visualization and digital tools to change the way it presents content; how Raju views the state of the thought leadership profession; and advice based on his own experience about the transition from journalism to professional services.

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Transcript

Raju Narisetti of McKinsey Global Publishing

Bob Buday:

Raju, it’s fantastic to have you here on our video podcast, I have so many questions to ask you. Why don’t we begin here: Anybody who has visited the McKinsey site, especially since COVID hit in early 2021, can’t help but notice how much high-quality content the firm has been able to produce. What makes that possible?

Raju Narisetti:

I appreciate you labeling it high quality, because we tend to think of it as that as well. I think there’s two aspects to that: the supply side and the demand side.

The supply side – creating content – is something that McKinsey has been doing it for close to 60 years now. The McKinsey Quarterly began 58 years ago. So they’re one of the pioneers, if not THE pioneer of the idea of thought leadership, even though we don’t necessarily define it as such.

I think it began with the simple idea that if you have good ideas and insights, and if you put them out there, then that’s good for business. You don’t have to actually use that as a traditional lead generation [strategy], as many people do. From a supply side, it created this interesting pull, which is what you do at McKinsey as you move up the ranks to go from a BA to an engagement manager, to an associate partner, to a partner to senior partner.

A fairly significant part of the measurement of your contribution to the firm is knowledge. Are you coming up with good insights and putting them out there? So that has created a built-in incentive for people to think about what lessons they can draw from a range of client service work they’ve done, and elevate that.

Then very smartly, they also created a group of people who would then help them — our editors. They can discuss your idea with you, improve it and put it into writing.  This has created a fairly steady supply of content.

So, we are not in a position that many companies are in: They want to do thought leadership, but their executives are too busy doing their day jobs and they don’t think of [thought leadership] as a day job. You have to schedule time to do it. But it never ever works that way.

At McKinsey, we are in a very happy position of having our people being measured by their contribution to business knowledge. As a result, there’s a constant stream of McKinsey people saying, “Hey, I want to write about this,” or “I have an idea. We’ve done a bunch of client engagements and are able to draw some lessons. Will you help us turn this into a McKinsey Insights article?” So the supply side has been fairly taken care of by the demand side.

How McKinsey Publishing Went into Overdrive When COVID Hit

Raju:

When COVID happened, the traditional McKinsey way of engaging with the world, which was very personal — meeting CEOs and talking about what we can do — pretty much disappeared overnight. As a result, publishing, which was always good to have as a companion to what McKinsey did on the consulting side, became the only way we could tell the world that we could help them. And I think as a result, the [internal] demand for wanting to put more things out there also soared.

Because of the processes that had been in place for a very long time — around risk and syndication and quality guardrails and all of that — we dramatically increased the output. The first year of COVID, we almost doubled the number of articles we were publishing with exactly the same team. We maintained quality because we were not just trying to inform our audiences: Our mission is to solve problems.

We think of it as this journey from insights to impact. So we look at a piece of thought leadership, we decide whether it is actionable. Are there things here that somebody who’s reading it can apply to their own situation? What you will rarely find us doing is being prescriptive — telling somebody, “This is the way to do it.”

Oftentimes, McKinsey content tends to be scenarios, saying, “Here are four or five different ways of doing it. And if your situation seems to be this, perhaps this scenario is best for you.” Then we leave it up to the audience to figure that out.

I think, Bob, most people don’t realize that one of the biggest challenges in thought leadership publishing, especially at a place like McKinsey, is that the content is created by people who are really, really experts at what they’re doing. They know a topic very well and they’ve worked on it for years, and it’s difficult to get them to be less granular.

But the other side of this is also our readers. We are not aiming for a very generalized audience, but typically general managers and VPs, and all the way to the board. These people have a fairly good understanding of that topic. The challenge then is to not dumb it down. You’re distilling the lessons and making sure that when a CFO reads something from us about valuation, it doesn’t feel like we’re talking down to them. We want them to feel like we are helping them apply it to a situation.

That’s the magic, I think. And over the years, I think McKinsey has done a pretty good job with it, and built up an audience. And oftentimes people turn to us first before they turn to others.

Bob:

Your “CEO Excellence” book exemplifies what you’re talking about. There have been many consulting books aimed at CEOs over the last 20 years, but your book is exceptional and it’s been a business best seller. Catering to those people who are among the most sophisticated people in business cannot be easy. I imagine it’s easy to dumb things down and insult the intelligence of somebody at the CEO level. At the same time, many of them are not aware of some arcane, complex technical concepts — things like Metaverse.

Thought Leadership Doesn’t Equal PR

Raju:

I think one of the myths about thought leadership, especially for those who are outside it, is it’s seen as an extended version of public relations, or corporate communications. What they don’t understand is that really good insights are often based on a lot of original first-party data. I think that also separates us from a lot of others who write about [management topics].

Just to give you an example, consider McKinsey Global Surveys. We have a panel of close to 30,000 executives who give us first-party data. Out of that come a lot of insights. That’s data you don’t get anywhere else, and it’s very timely. We can ask questions and respond very quickly to what’s happening. For example, if there’s a war in Ukraine, what does that mean for energy? What does it mean for supply chains if there is a pandemic?

We can get real-time responses. Our consultants can then develop insights based on contemporary facts on the ground, rather than on pure opinion like you’ll see in many op-eds. I think a lot of people confuse thought leadership with opinion writing, but for a commercial purpose.

Our “CEO Excellence” book is a great example. It’s the first book that I was involved in as a publisher, and it has made every single New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today bestseller list — you name it. It’s just about hitting 100,000 hardbound copies sold in nine months after it’s come out. We’re very happy with it.

But the reality is it’s based on a very rigorous database that looked at Fortune 100 companies and years of data that we have distilled with 60 or 70 CEOs. We applied very rigorous metrics and then talked to them.

The other standard McKinsey has is that over time we are credible enough that some of our senior partners have the ability to talk to some of the biggest industrial leaders and get them to open up. We combine those personal insights with this rigorous database, and write it in a way that doesn’t talk down to people.

I think the other magic to thought leadership — and you know this very well, Bob — is to really define your audiences. If you’re writing a book for CEOs, that’s a very small audience. There are only so many of them. But a book like this has concentric circles of audiences. A lot of people aspire to be a CEO. Oftentimes, these are fresh MBAs who feel that 20 years out they’ll become one, or have some other role in the C-suite.

The Genesis of a Best-Seller

Bob:

On the “CEO Excellence” book, how long did it take to do the research, the analysis, and the writing, to give people a sense of what’s involved here?

Raju:

I go back to this idea: We are not here to write books. That’s not the intent. It always comes out of years of doing something and saying, “Hey, we are starting to see some patterns that are repeating themselves.” And it seems worth our time, because book writing, as you know, is fairly intensive and takes away significant time from our senior partners. In this case, it took about a few years to complete. And it began with the McKinsey Quarterly article, actually.

One of the interesting things about us is that we put a lot of energy into saying, “How is our content actually doing?” We learn lessons from that. The article was a hit. It got 100,000 reads. And that gave us a sense there clearly was an appetite for it.

Then the authors said, “We can make the time. Let’s see if we can come up with 10 or 12 chapters, and what would those be? Would they convey different things?” From the time they first reached out to me, to the time the book came out, was almost two years. But some of that has to do with the book publishing industry. As you know, mainstream publishers usually take six to nine months to publish your book after the time you’ve given them a fully edited manuscript.

Bob:

Was that the first book you’ve been involved in, in your career?

Raju:

As a publisher, yes. I have not written one. I don’t think I’ll ever write one. I work on very short-term deadlines.

But since then we’ve published three other books, and I’m happy to say a couple of them have also become bestsellers of different kinds.

Bob:

So I’d love to know your insights on producing and marketing, especially great books, since this is kind of a new thing for you. Any things you didn’t realize about creating a great business book until you were involved in the process?

Raju:

I had a couple of hypotheses and both panned out. One is that most consultants think they can write. Some can write, but very few can write a book and hold a narrative arc over, say, 300 pages. It is a very specialized skill. Not many of us have it. One of the things we do is bring in an editor, writer or collaborator very early in the process: all the way from the proposal stage through finishing it.

One of the things I didn’t realize was the book publishing industry is very skeptical of groupthink. Sometimes you propose a book to a big publisher, like a Random House or HarperCollins, and they love the idea. But when you tell them there are going to be three or four authors, they worry whether it will have a relatable voice – or whether it will be a bunch of consultants putting in a lot of jargon into it.

One way we address that is to tell them our books will have a writer involved, and that this person will make sure there is one voice throughout. The other thing the publishers like is stories. Unless we can illustrate these profound themes with real people willing to talk about both the ups and downs, the publishers won’t be interested. Our ability to access those people, whether it’s Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft) or Jamie Dimon (CEO of JP Morgan Chase), I think that combination that makes it very interesting.

But again, as you know, Bob, the book business has become a little bit like Hollywood, where the big production houses will fund a lot of movies, but put their marketing only behind what they think are blockbusters. A lot of the onus is on us to figure out how we can create demand for this book, which we know is good.

Creating a “Habit” for the Business Book Audience

Raju:

One of the unique things we have done at McKinsey over the last two years is create a McKinsey on books ecosystem. We created a series called “Author Talks,” where once a week we talk to an author of a new business book.

This has nothing to do with McKinsey books. We felt like there was a gap where our audience likes business books but doesn’t have the time to obviously read every single business book. And there’s not a lot of places where you can read book reviews anymore, right?

Sure, there are lots of podcasts with authors. But that requires a fairly significant time commitment. So we came up with five questions to ask authors about their book. And we’ve done it now for two years, we’ve done about 120 of them. The advantage of that is I have actually created an ecosystem of readers who now enjoy reading about business books. This gives us a platform for our own books when they come out.

McKinsey doesn’t believe in advertising. We don’t like to spend money on promoting our services. This was a way for us to create a natural ecosystem of book readers, book lovers or business books. And when our book comes out, there’s a valuable platform and audience that then amplifies the fact that we have a potentially good book out there.

Bob:

It attracts the serious business book reader to that part of your site, so that when you publish another serious business book they are ready to read it.

Raju:

Yes. We’ve created a habit of every week telling people that we have an interesting conversation with an author of a new business book.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this: “How do I respect the one single non-renewable resource my audiences have, which is their time?” We try to be succinct. We get in and out, and give them something actionable. Once we create that habit, we can bring people back on a very consistent basis. I’m not spending a lot of time chasing a new audience for every book we publish, but I can bring people back on a consistent basis. I have a fairly large built-in audience.

Revamping the McKinsey Web Experience in a World of Content Overload
Raju:

In the last three years, we have spent a lot of energy in McKinsey rethinking the presentation, the packaging and that experience. The reason for that is fairly simple: There was a time when being a first mover was a bit of a lasting advantage: If you’re the one who wrote for the first time about a topic and nobody else did, you had a fairly sustainable time advantage.

I don’t think that’s the case anymore; every topic has been written about. Take sustainability. Everybody’s writing about it, from mainstream media to very niche publications to all of the people that McKinsey thinks are its peers. The question then is, “Even if we think our insights on sustainability are unique and better than anybody else’s, how do we get people to consume it?” Once they do, they will realize that McKinsey’s insights are better.

But who has the time to do that?

Increasingly, we are revamping the experience of consuming a piece of content from McKinsey. If you can make the experience proprietary, you can sustain your competitive advantage. We want them to say, “The last time I read something about sustainability, McKinsey’s was not only insightful in terms of the words, but the graphics, the visuals, the packaging, the interactivity were also very interesting and useful.”

I’ll give you a good example from this week. Just yesterday, we published a new report from our McKinsey Global Institute called “Pixels of Progress.” We divided the world into 40,000 micro regions, rather than taking a country view. The biggest difference there is when you drill down to these 40,000 regions, you get a view that is 230 times more precise than if you’re looking at India as a country.

We then broke it out into six chapters. In the old days, we would have published 200 pages – take it or leave it.

With “Pixels of Progress”, we have a very compelling 10-minute video introduction to it. It lays it out in a way that almost feels like “McKinsey Meets the Weatherman,” with lots of moving graphics and one of our senior partners talking about it. Each chapter has a lot of interesting data, a lot of interactivity.

The collective experience of consuming this from McKinsey is so unique. At the end of the day, data about the world is available in lots of places. If you have amazing content, insightful content, useful content, then put an experience layer on it that is unique and differentiated. And the collective experience of that is what is going to be different than a BCG or Bain or anybody else publishing on the same topic.

Does it take resources? Absolutely. There were 12 people from Global Publishing – front-end developers, back-end developers, coders, designers, analytics, and other people — who got all involved in this project.

That’s where I think we’re starting to separate ourselves from the pack. The idea that we will write something, no matter what the topic is, that somebody wouldn’t have either written about it or isn’t going to follow right away is table stakes. Everybody has content.

The Future of Thought Leadership Publishing

Bob:

How do you see McKinsey’s thought publishing operations, both the content creation and the experience you deliver, changing over the next few years?

Raju:

I think it’s not going to substantially change from what I talked about. Where you will see us do more is not just talking about existing problems, but getting ahead of them. What might 2030 or 2050 look like? Where do we think things are headed? And what can you do about it?

So that’s going to more forward-looking stuff, for sure. Clearly, we will place a lot more emphasis on storytelling narrative and making sure that it’s engaging. At the end of the day, the only thing I’m competing for with everybody else is the one single, non-renewable resource: your time. If I can get five more minutes of your time, then it’s a win for me.

And how do I get that? I’m spending a lot of time thinking about that. We’re also connecting the dots a lot about who’s reading us. Are we providing them value? And are we providing them a 360-view of it, because I don’t want to spam you if I don’t know who you are?

I want to get to know our viewers a little bit more so that I can respect their time and personalize things for them. If you follow us on our McKinsey Insights app, you can personalize it now. On the desktop, it’s a little bit challenging. But I think there’ll be more technological progress on that front.

And at the end of the day, we must have really good writing and good editing. That doesn’t change the core of what we do as McKinsey publishing. In the short term, I have a feeling that like, most organizations, 2023 is going to be challenging. The world is entering a phase of extreme uncertainties that we haven’t seen in the last couple of decades. First, we all have to make sure we have significant ROI on what we do. But we also have to get smarter and more efficient at how we do things and manage both the demand and supply side of things.

There’s a saying that we are using increasingly at McKinsey. It came from Brazilian Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna. He said you can’t pass 15 cars in sunny summer weather, but you can pass pretty much all of them when it’s raining.

I think it’s going to be raining next year. The recession, the ongoing war in Europe, the energy crisis, a lot of questions around where globalization is going. So it is cloudy, and in parts of the world it is going to be raining. We don’t intend to just sit back. We want to help our clients to pass their competition. But along the way, we want to make sure we are passing our competition, and maintaining the lead in areas where we are ahead.

Advice for Students and Colleges

Bob:

A while back, you taught at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Based on that experience and perhaps your knowledge of other university schools of communications, do you think journalism students are aware of opportunities at places like McKinsey? Do they know about thought leadership jobs in professional services, tech firms or industrial manufacturers that have somebody involved in thought leadership?

Raju:

It’s not a challenge with the students. I think it’s a problem with the faculty. I don’t think the educators fully understand what we do, because their end of the spectrum is pure news — covering news, being in a newsroom and all of that. That comes with its own guardrails, values and ethics. And at the other end, the so called deep dark side, is PR.

I think a lot of people don’t understand that good thought leadership is actually in the middle — and oftentimes closer to the news side of things, minus the spin – because it emphasizes robust underlying data and facts. I think there is a myth that most thought leadership is just commercial and that all it’s doing is trying to sell things. I often ask people, “Have you read a McKinsey article? Because if you read one and show me where McKinsey is even mentioned in it, then I would want to have a discussion with you.”

I think we haven’t done a good job of talking about it in university settings. But honestly, we haven’t had to, because the news industry has been in such turmoil for the last 15-20 years. Our ability to find talented editors has been pretty high. If I post a job for a senior editor, I get 500 applications, a lot of them with 10 to 20 years of hardcore media experience.

But it has also meant that most of our staff has tended to be older, often people who see it as a post-journalism career. We have created in the last three years a robust internship program, focusing not on people who are fresh out of college but on professionals who have some experience and some subject matter expertise. And you need to understand that you’re writing for a sophisticated audience. So perhaps that does come with years of some content journalism background.

But we also need younger people with digital talent to handle video podcasts, audience development insights, email. Maybe they’re not thinking about us as the right place to go. And I think the onus is on us to show them that they can still do honest, good, impactful content. It’s not news, but it is equally satisfying. And, like traditional journalism, we need good storytellers.

I think the onus is on us to kind of engage with more of the journalism schools. Some schools like Northwestern, which have thought of their school as more of a broader school, are much more open to it. Columbia is going to be impossible because Columbia thinks of itself as a nine-month journalism master’s finishing program.

But I think the faculty there could better understand that some really good work is going on. There are lots of examples. Over the past few years we did a feature, now called “McKinsey for Kids,” that taught us many great lessons that we are now applying. I will stack that up against the best of The New York Times and Wall Street Journalinteractive things. From an engagement point of view, I think it’s an opportunity for us to show faculty that we are doing great work. At the end of the day, you want to be a good storyteller with great multimedia skills.

Transitioning from Journalism

Bob:

Over the past 35 years I’ve seen many people make the transition from working in business journalism to working at McKinsey or for another large professional services firm. What is your advice for them about the transition they will have to make?

Raju:

I think the biggest transition — and this is an mental and emotional one, Bob — is if you are a journalist, no matter how well your organization is doing or not doing, you and the work you do are products. You have to recognize that at McKinsey, you will support the main product, which is consulting. It’s a real mind shift to go from being seen as the center of gravity to saying, “What I do helps the center of gravity continue to grow.” We are professionalizing our firm functions and bringing in some great talent, but at the end of the day, we are all in service of our consulting work.

The other adjustments are situational. Given our culture, I can’t just say, “I’m the publisher, this is the way it’s going to happen.” I have to sell the idea to somebody because we have this belief that anybody has the right to dissent. However, people have the obligation to engage once we all agree it is the right thing to do. At McKinsey, we talk a lot more about these things. You could be like me — a newcomer with no history at McKinsey. But if I have a good idea, people will say, “Oh, that sounds good. Let’s do it.”

Finally, for me personally, the biggest thing I didn’t realize was that we never have to think about monetizing the individual reader. In journalism, you spend so much time on how to get this person to subscribe. Or how do I get this person to stay on the site so that I can show them a lot more ads?

Which is why when I came here, I said, “We’re not going to measure time spent on the site, because time spent is a completely irrelevant thing.” You can game it. If your site is very hard to read, and if it’s hard to find things, people will spend a lot of time on your site. But that’s not the valuable way of thinking about it. The way we measure is that has somebody gone at least a third into the article before we say that’s a real read. So I think differently about the ways of measuring engagement because I’m not trying to monetize you as a reader. That makes a big difference.

Bob:

Going back to making the transition from journalism to thought leadership in a B2B firm, what is your advice for who run thought leadership groups in these companies about the care and feeding of these ex journalists and others who are brought into the firm?

Raju:

I’m not saying we do a great job of it; it’s a work in progress. But onboarding and pairing them with people who were seasoned journalists and have been at McKinsey for a long time, to get the system is very critical. In your first months at McKinsey, if you’re a news journalist, you should get used to your copy being what’s called top-edited. That means it will come back to you completely red-lined by an executive editor on my team. If you take that as a personal failure, you’re going to struggle.

But if you take that as “This is what makes it an interesting McKinsey article for McKinsey’s audience” and learn from it, over time [it will get better]. I think that’s very important. You have to a thick skin and confidence in your own abilities — especially around the number of times you try to sell an idea and it doesn’t fly. When this happens to me I say to myself, “Clearly, I’m not selling it the way McKinsey’s used to be being told about.” There’s a learning curve to that, which you pick up. But you’ve got to have confidence. There’s a reason why they hired you. Getting hired at McKinsey is usually a gauntlet of many, many interviews. I had about 20 of them before I got in. So clearly they want you.

But you also have to be very open to recognizing that you’re working at a place where everybody is extremely talented. It’s a hard place to get to. We get a million [job] applications, and we hire something like 4,000 to 5,000 people a year. I think that comfort level has to be there.

Over time, you will develop expertise. You will start realizing that. We often get a senior partner who will say, “Hey, can I get X person to always edit my articles?” Then you know you’ve succeeded.

Bob:

Raju, I could ask you questions for a couple of hours easily. But I know I can’t. So thank you so much for being on our video and podcast. We will be talking soon and hopefully very soon again for another episode.

Raju:

Thank you so much, Bob.

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